Might makes right is an aphorism with several potential meanings (in order of increasing complexity):
- In English, the phrase is most often used in negative assessments of expressions of power.
- The second related idea associated with the phrase connotes that a society's view of right and wrong is determined, like its perspective on history, by those currently in power.
- The term can be used in the descriptive, positive way, in the same sense that people say that "History is written by the victors." Since every man labels what he thinks is good for himself as "right," only those who are able to defeat their enemies are the ones who can push their idea of what is right into fruition.
- In terms of morality; those who are the strongest will rule others and have the power to determine right and wrong. By this definition, the phrase manifests itself in a normative sense. This precise meaning is used to define a moral code for society to follow in the works of Nietzsche and others, discussions of social Darwinism, Weberian theme of the authority of the state (e.g. 'Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft').
The idea of Vae Victis
can be found in Homer and the hawk parable in Hesiod's 'Works and Days' and in Livy
- in which "Vae Victus" is firstly recorded.
The first known use of this phrase in the English language was in 1846 by the American pacifist
and abolitionist Adin Ballou
(1803-1890), who wrote "But now, instead of discussion and argument, brute force rises up to the rescue of discomfited error, and crushes truth and right into the dust. 'Might makes right,' and hoary folly totters on in her mad career escorted by armies and navies." (Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended, 1846.)
The phrase in reverse is echoed in Abraham Lincoln's words in his February 27, 1860, Cooper Union Address:
"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it" - in his attempt to defend a policy of neutral engagement with those who practice slavery, perhaps to appear more nationally oriented and religiously convicted in hopes of winning the presidential election (which he did).
The idea, though not the wording, has been attributed to the History of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.
In a letter to Albert Einstein from 1932, Sigmund Freud clearly explores this idea of "might versus right" as well. He discusses the relationship between the two and how this concept has in fact existed throughout time.
References in literature
The author T.H. White
covered this topic extensively in the Arthurian
novel The Once and Future King
teaches young Arthur to challenge this concept, who, after assuming the throne, attempts to reduce violence through various means and with varying degrees of success.